India's "cash-for-fatwas" scandal broke out last weekend when a TV channel broadcast a sting operation that showed several Indian Muslim clerics allegedly taking, or demanding, bribes in return for issuing fatwas, or religious edicts. The bribes, some of which were as low as $60, were offered by undercover reporters wearing hidden cameras over a period of six weeks. In return for the cash, the clerics appear to hand out fatwas written in Urdu, the language used by many Muslims in Pakistan and India, on subjects requested by the reporters. Among the decrees issued by the fatwas: that Muslims are not allowed to use credit cards, double beds, or camera-equipped cell phones, and should not act in films, donate their organs, or teach their children English. One cleric issued a fatwa against watching TV; another issued a fatwa in support of watching TV.
The "cash-for-fatwas" scandal has also led to a renewed debate on what constitutes a fatwa, and who has legitimate authority to issue one. Fatwas — like the one passed by Iran's Ayatullah Khomeini in 1989 against the novelist Salman Rushdie, or those issued by Osama bin Laden in 1996 and 1998 against America — have come to epitomize the intolerance of Islamic fundamentalists. Yet many Muslims argue that the purpose of fatwas has been misunderstood: A fatwa is, technically speaking, a ruling on a point of Islamic law made by a recognized Muslim scholar in response to a question put to him. Since Osama bin Laden is no Islamic scholar, many deny his right to issue a fatwa. The sway that fatwas hold over Muslims is also not as great as many outsiders think. Last year, a Muslim cleric issued a fatwa stating that it was un-Islamic for Sania Mirza, India's most famous tennis player and a Muslim, to wear sleeveless tops or short skirts on court. Mirza simply dismissed the ruling; indeed, many, if not most, urban Indian Muslims do not take fatwas seriously. However, in rural communities, a well-respected mufti's fatwa — on issues ranging from marriage to health to women's rights — can carry considerable influence. India's Muslim leaders announced that they will soon create a new body that will monitor the passing of fatwas in the country, in a bid to preserve that influence, and nip the popular anger swirling around this scandal.